In Jean Larteguy’s 1960 novel The Centurions, Colonel Raspéguy—the fictional commander of French paratroopers during the 1954 Battle at Dien Bien Phu and again during France’s war in Algeria—reflects on the repeated failures of regular armies throughout history to effectively counter well-organized guerrilla forces. Success in Algeria, he argues, would need two armies. One would be “for display, with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, fanfares, staffs, distinguished and doddering generals.”

The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage battledress, who would not be put on display but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I should like to fight.

Raspéguy’s thoughts give voice to the dilemma special operations forces (SOF) have faced after every major war. Time and again, once the shooting stops, a flawed peacetime logic prevails: SOF are supposedly no longer needed and the military services can go back to the business of preparing for the conventional war they hope never happens. Raspéguy’s commentary is especially relevant to the inflection point at which US Air Force finds itself today. The service might not have a roadmap to direct its actions after two decades of post-9/11 wars, but this character in a six-decade-old French novel is a good place to start.

The myopic focus on peer competitors that characterizes US military institutional thinking today is a mistake. In modern history, the overwhelming majority of wars have been limited. According to a RAND study, over the past century war between nations has become “increasingly rare and occurs mostly at lower intensities.” US defense planning, however, is again focusing almost exclusively on peer competitors. The Department of Defense and the services are reorienting away from the messy, unpleasant, and irregular wars the nation fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria over the last twenty years, to their preferred paradigm: deterring conventional, multidomain warfare, with China as the pacing threat for organizing, training, and equipping US forces. Deterring a land war in Europe against Russia is a second priority, while managing aggression from Iran, North Korea, and violent extremist organizations collectively holds third place, although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that the relative priority of these threats can and will change, disrupting strategic planning.

This makes a degree of sense given Chinese and Russian military investments, policy declarations, and aggressive behavior toward their neighbors. However, there are serious limitations to a deterrence strategy focused on a narrow set of capabilities, as the United States discovered when it was unable to assist East German, Polish, and Hungarian uprisings against the Soviet Union during the early decades of the Cold War. If history offers any insight for the future, deterring war between strategic peers virtually guarantees the growth of limited, irregular conflicts. As Army Chief of Staff General James McConville has observed, in this new era of strategic competition between the three major powers, there will likely be more, not fewer, instances of limited war, and those will take place far from where the services are planning, training, and equipping to fight China and Russia.

The Air Force, in particular, needs to understand and adapt to this reality. History suggests that great power confrontation will most likely be waged through surrogates or proxies, and these conflicts are unlikely to transpire in the hoped-for battlespaces. Rather, the United States will be confronting China, Russia, Iran, and foreign terrorist organizations in places where the environments are primitive, remote, and austere, and where modern, highly sophisticated aircraft and the supporting people and parts needed to keep them flying will struggle to operate. These primitive spaces present too much risk and ambiguity for the technical marvels of modern air warfare, such as B-2s, F-22s, F-35s, MC-130s, and CV-22s. As in Angola, Laos, El Salvador, Cambodia, Tibet, and the other limited wars of the Cold War, small special operations teams conducting missions in the shadows and helping US partners resist aggression exemplify how the West should confront Chinese, Russian, and Iranian surrogates and proxies going forward.

The Origins of Special Air Forces

During the Cold War, the US Air Force was barely involved in the uncomfortable wars that negated airpower’s technological superiority. In 1961, then Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Curtis LeMay grudgingly created the Jungle Jim program that eventually became AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command) to address far-flung instances of irregular warfare. AFSOC addressed the distractions of irregular warfare so the conventional Air Force could focus on defending Europe. Except for short-lived efforts by air commandos during Operations Farm Gate and Mill Pond, the Air Force eschewed partner capacity building. From the early 1960s until the end of the Vietnam War, air operations in aircraft optimized for irregular warfare were an unwanted—albeit tolerated—addendum to the central function of deterring conventional and nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Today, the Air Force is building systems and units it will need to deter China and Russia. To ensure deterrence succeeds, the next-generation capabilities and the willingness to use them will need to be, as Colonel Raspéguy presaged, demonstrated during training, exercises, and, occasionally, operations. NATO’s current air policing operations in Europe suggest that Western defensive air capabilities are successfully deterring Russian forces from targeting NATO member states. Conventional deterrence in Europe is working.

But conventional deterrence air forces are poorly suited to address many of the most likely threats key US partners will face. For strategic confrontation short of war, in remote and austere environments, the United States will need its other air force: AFSOC. Air commandos are Raspéguy’s “young enthusiasts in camouflage” who are best prepared to help threatened nations prevent or counter Chinese- and Russian-sponsored subversion. But in what seems to be a case of déjà vu, AFSOC is divesting its capabilities for irregular warfare and focusing instead on becoming a high-tech airlift force with little to no utility in the most likely future combat situations.

This should raise alarms at US Air Force headquarters and at US Special Operations Command. AFSOC offers two unique roles: first, it provides the air component to the nation’s counterterrorism force; second, it strengthens and improves the one capability the conventional Air Force does not need or want—the ability to build the capabilities and capacities of important partner air forces facing Chinese- and Russian-sponsored subversion through security force assistance, building partner capacity, and foreign internal defense.

The Challenge

Twenty-first-century fighters and bombers flying from secure bases pose little threat to guerrillas hiding in the jungles of Southeast Asia or ensconced in the deserts of Africa. Yes, the United States’ formidable global strike and global reach capabilities make it possible for bombers to drop a load of bombs onto an enemy stronghold halfway around the world or a remotely piloted aircraft to take out a terrorist leader. But for what outcome and at what cost? Does one dead insurgent leader justify the expense of a thirty-hour flight and the multiple tanker sorties required to keep a bomber airborne? Can one bespoke strike mission achieve anything more than short-term disarray and a leadership hiccup for an ideologically driven enemy? As the war in Ukraine demonstrates, successful strategic competition on the fringes is the result of long-term commitment to security force assistance and persistent presence. For air forces, this means air advisors who serve alongside and build trust among partners, improve the ability of partner air forces to use the tools they have more effectively, and help partners provide security for their populations.

For now, AFSOC has the only combat aviation advisory (CAA) capability in the Air Force. Much like Raspéguy’s “other” army, AFSOC’s CAAs constitute the other air force, which complements the regionally focused foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare capabilities of ground SOF. To fully support the other SOF components, AFSOC should be fielding squadrons of people and aircraft able to effectively operate in primitive conditions far from mature basing. The aircraft need to be analogous to the partners’ aircraft, and every crewmember, maintainer, and support person should be a trained combat aviation advisor. AFSOC’s irregular warfare aircraft would serve multiple roles: (1) home station training and flying currency for the CAAs, (2) low-cost and small-footprint persistent air support (in the form of aerial fires, armed and unarmed surveillance and reconnaissance, air mobility and transport, and medical/casualty evacuation) for SOF teams in remote and austere locations, and (3) combined training opportunities with partners when the situations warrant.

A Dangerous Gamble

According to AFSOC’s 2020 Strategic Guidance, the plan is to “divest of capabilities with uncertain value propositions or high cost-to-benefit ratios while focusing investment in capabilities only AFSOC can provide the joint force.” Curiously, only AFSOC has been able to provide the joint force with fully trained and equipped CAAs, but it is instead looking at capabilities, such as launching cruise missiles, that any airlift aircraft should be able accomplish. The US Special Operations Command director of operations notes that AFSOC has not described how it plans to fulfill its Title 10 responsibilities to conduct aviation FID and assumes the geographic combatant commands no longer require CAA capabilities, but this is a concocted assumption. If AFSOC does not allow air advisors to advise and assist their counterparts during operations and strips air advisors of the skills and attributes that enable them to demonstrate credibility, build trust, and create relationships, then of course, there will be little need for what AFSOC is offering. (A US Special Operations Command memorandum titled, “Operational Risk Assessment for Air Force Special Operations Command Divestiture of Aviation Foreign Internal [AvFID] C-208, C-145, and A-29 Aircraft,” dated April 29, 2022, highlights proposed changes and the assumptions underlying them, but the document is not currently available online.) Accordingly, CAA manpower billets are being reallocated to other air operations squadrons and the aircraft needed to keep air advisors proficient in their aviation skills, minimize operational risks, and demonstrate credibility will be divested. Divesting the Air Force’s only CAA capability will allow AFSOC to prioritize high-end, technologically advanced MC-130s, AC-130s, and CV-22s designed for the counterterrorism mission. The nation needs to maintain that capability, but counterterrorism and hostage rescue are not AFSOC’s sole missions. In the future and most likely operating environment, SOF air advising should hold a role equal to countering terrorism so as to provide the Air Force an asymmetric overmatch capability in irregular warfare environments.

Only AFSOC’s CAAs are organized, trained, and equipped to confront Chinese, Russian, and Iranian surrogates in remote, strategically important, and risky corners of the globe; moreover, they are the only ones with the language, cultural, and aviation credibility that ensures the access to and influence with key partners that is emphasized in AFSOC’s Strategic Guidance. Senior leaders are betting that AFSOC’s future role will be to penetrate Chinese or Russian airspace to insert, resupply, and extract special operations teams, a significant aviation challenge against modern antiaccess and area-denial systems. If that does become AFSOC’s primary mission, what then is special about AFSOC? It will become the air mobility equivalent of the next-generation fighters and bombers currently supplying conventional deterrence. In special operations, the human domain is primary and technology is a supporting element that enables and enhances human capabilities. Air Force special operators know this, but AFSOC’s leadership has chosen to reject the core special operations activities most appropriate for human-centric warfare—security force assistance, foreign internal defense, and building partner capacity. Pursuing misguided programs such as MC-130s on floats seems to affirm AFSOC’s rejection of the human domain.

AFSOC is actively shedding the asset that makes it special: air commandos with the skills, knowledge, and personalities needed to tackle problems from an unconventional mindset, who are prepared to go to places where other airmen cannot. In the near future, AFSOC will not have air commandos who speak their hosts’ languages, are familiar with the capabilities and limitations of their hosts’ equipment, or hold their hosts’ trust and confidence. This hard-earned combination of cultural currency, tactical acumen, and human trust enable their hosts to maximize the potential of the aircraft they already possess while addressing their own security challenges.

The Way Forward

CAA experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Jordan, Colombia, and elsewhere over the past thirty years have shown that cultural acumen, creativity, adaptability, patience, and empathy are the key attributes needed for success in ambiguous airpower environments—skills that are incongruent with a twenty-first-century Air Force focused on conventional deterrence and cannot be gained through just-in-time training.

SOF are very familiar with these boom-and-bust cycles. To avoid setting itself up for failure and repeating the mistakes of the past, the US Air Force should immediately stop divesting its CAA capabilities. It should also restore funding for language training, and retain the aircraft appropriate for training and operations in those austere and remote environments where SOF will most likely be deployed. Finally, it should give security force assistance the priority and importance it deserves to successfully confront Chinese- and Russian-sponsored subversion.

Irregular warfare is not going away. But AFSOC, on its current path, is abdicating its role as the US Air Force’s only provider of truly special air forces. Who, then, will help smaller strategic partners use their indigenous airpower to defend themselves in gray zone or irregular conflicts? It’s looking like there will be no one.

Richard D. Newton, PhD, is a retired US Air Force lieutenant colonel who served twenty-two years as a combat rescue and special operations helicopter pilot, combat aviation advisor, and strategic planner. He is a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and holds a master of military art and science from the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies and a PhD in defense studies from King’s College London. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the Joint Special Operations University. He is the author of The RAF and Tribal Control: Airpower and Irregular Warfare Between the World Wars and the forthcoming Air Power in East Africa, 1914–1918: Aviation’s Roots in Irregular Warfare.

Jennifer Walters is an active duty Air Force major and KC-10A instructor pilot. She has led aircrew on air refueling, humanitarian, and contingency operations across the globe. She deployed four times in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Freedom’s Sentinel, Inherent Resolve, and Resolute Support, completing over one hundred combat sorties. She is a distinguished graduate of the US Air Force Academy and holds a master of philosophy and PhD in policy analysis from the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Most recently, she served as lead speechwriter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, DC. She is also the cofounder of Air Mobility Command’s Reach Athena, which identifies and addresses female and family-centric barriers to readiness. As an Olmsted scholar, Jennifer will study international security policy in Aix-en-Provence, France for her next assignment.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the Department of the Air Force, Joint Special Operations University, and United States Special Operations Command.

Image credit: Gunnery Sgt. Steve Cushman, US Marine Corps